What spiritual practice will get me to that warm, safe place?

I was raised Catholic. Hinduism and Buddhism attract me. I like meditation. What is my path?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 18, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have a common story: bad things happening to me when I was little that I am just now really remembering; a sense of self that gets really shaky sometimes; a short list of pretty self-destructive behaviors; a compulsion to help others coupled with the struggle to accept help for myself (my stubborn dependency on self-reliance); days where I lose time and slip down the rabbit hole; days where the line between light and dark, between life and death is rice-paper thin. My life is really full now: full-time work, full-time school (to complete my undergrad degree in psychology -- with a desire to one day be a therapist), full-time therapy (group and individual every week, couples' every other week). I do have good therapists who don't make more mistakes than I can handle. My partner and I will celebrate our 16th anniversary soon. I want children, but I'm not sure she does. It seems important to tell you that I'm 35, we met when I was 18, and it's been my only adult relationship.

This is a wandering, funny correspondence. I'm not really articulating how hard it is to live, really live, in the right now, and not the five minutes ahead of now, and feel and breathe and survive. I do write, and use my poetry to work things out -- mostly in code only I understand. Of course, my strongest work is the stuff that's not coded, but it's the hardest to write.

Anyway, I have this belief that if I could somehow find a spiritual center, then all my struggles would be so much more easily managed. I was raised Catholic, but while I love the ritual of it, the patriarchy grates on me, and the pope's not too fond of gays. Hinduism, Buddhism, plain old meditation, they all interest me, but nothing strikes me as the thing I need. So my question is this: How do you find that centered, spiritual, warm, safe place that makes the rest of this crazy world seem tolerable?

A Weary Traveler

Dear Weary Traveler,

It is good to be reminded of the existence of this place. After reading your letter I had to go and try to find it again. Just the thought of there being a centered, spiritual, warm, safe place is enough to cause one to seek it again. But I couldn't really find it just off the bat like that. I looked around and realized that I don't seem to have access to it right now. That may be because I am distracted with a houseguest, or that my attention is centered on an upcoming trip. All I can do in the moment is remember that there is indeed such a place, or such an experience, and I, like you, have occasionally had access to it.

As to techniques for departure and arrival: I'm not sure that if you saw the spiritual practice you need, it would strike you as the spiritual practice you need. You might have to find what you need by simply continuing to do the dumb stuff you're already doing, but trusting it more, or doing it more. You might have to find it by not looking for what you want, by using stealth and indirection, alert to paradox and uncertainty. Or you may find it through nothing more than stubborn persistence -- a persistence which on the outside looks like faith though it doesn't feel like faith.

I'm afraid this prose may sound like ersatz mumbo jumbo, as though I were trying to impersonate a spiritual master out of the movies. What I mean by talking about paradox and indirection is simply that what you describe is elusive and cannot be captured directly. This peace you seek is not an object you can recognize. You can't pick it out like a car. But you know what it is. You've been there. You just can't remember how you got there last time.

Each time you get there, it's by a new path. Every path closes over behind you and must be cut anew. So trust the dumb stuff, but use the machete. Maybe you stumbled upon it, just thrashing away, cutting at the brush. Maybe you allowed yourself to wander and you wandered there, feeling the magnetism of the place but not really trying to get there, knowing if you tried to get there it would disappear, if you looked at it directly it would evaporate.

An aura of resistance surrounds what we need, because what we need seems to threaten who we are and what we want. So visiting this place takes training and preparation. Meditation is a kind of daily training. It gets you ready for the trip you have planned. So I would suggest that if you want to get to this place you not worry so much about getting there as about always being ready to get there. Train for it. Be ready for it. Meditate and do the things you already know how to do. Do the dumb stuff, and use the machete.

Maybe passages into that other world open up at regular intervals, or maybe its schedule appears on a timetable in print too small to read. Maybe it's like the same schedule followed by the clouds that cover and reveal Mount Fuji. You never know when you're going to catch a glimpse of it. You just have to look up every now and then. You have to be ready to see it.

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